To the Editors:
News of the maximum jail sentence of two-and-a-half years, for Negro poet and playwright LeRoi Jones, comes as a severe shock to every person concerned with freedom of artistic expression in our society.
Judge Leon W. Kapp, before pronouncing sentence, read one of Mr. Jones’ poems aloud in court. As press reports noted, it was clear the judge applied the harsh sentence because the poem offended him. This, too, appeared to have been the issue when the judge refused to entertain a motion of appeal, or even to grant bail.
The conclusion, therefore, is inescapable that one of America’s major young poets is in jail today not because he was found guilty of carrying arms as charged, but because his poems expressed ideas the judge found objectionable.
As publisher of several of LeRoi Jones’ books, and specifically of the poem that incenses Judge Kapp, I find this outrageous sentence to be particularly odious. It is obviously out of all proportion to the charge. Morever, it flies in the face of all principles of free speech guaranteed to all citizens, whether white or black. It deprives LeRoi Jones of his freedom for the same reasons that Régis Debray was thrown into jail in Bolivia—the vengeful persecution of the writer for his beliefs. It makes a mockery of the concern we profess for the suppressed intellectuals in the Communist countries.
Every member of our community must feel this flagrant violation of the artist’s freedom of expression as a threat directed at him. It calls for immediate and vigorous condemnation by all who believe in the even-handed application of justice, and who refuse to abandon intellectual liberty.
New York City
February 1, 1968